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Do We “Have to” Find New Ways to Think about Water?

June 20, 2013Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Do We “Have to” Find New Ways to Think about Water?

In a word:  yes.  Headlines all over the world remind us that our relationships with water in general and rivers more particularly are fraught and unstable.  Floods are rolling across much of Europe while the Colorado River basin faces another extraordinarily dry year.  Hot debates erupt about the best ways to replenish the Louisiana Gulf coast, so badly damaged by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe three years ago.  The Mississippi River sees record floods in 2011, followed by record drought in 2012, only to go back into flood in 2013.

It is clear to many that solutions to these problems and others like them are not just matters of more scientific study, although we certainly don’t know as much about the Mississippi, for example, as we need to.   By the same token, while we need better policies of many kinds to shape a more sustainable relationship with our rivers and our water, policy doesn’t arise in a vacuum.

At River Life, we work with scholars and practitioners in both the realms of science and the world of policy and planning.  But our specialty is the “third leg of the stool,” the narratives and images that define our deepest cultural engagement with water.  The Mississippi River would be one of the most important rivers in the world even if Samuel Clemens had never written a word under the pen name Mark Twain.  Twain’s books, though, have made the Mississippi one of the iconic landscapes of North America, indeed, of the world.

We need to update our narratives beyond Twain, though.  Barefoot boys on rafts dodging steamboats don’t speak clearly to today’s challenges on the big river.  Toward the purpose of developing updated narratives and images, the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study, the home of the River Life program, is pleased to announce that it has received a Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The announcement follows:

 The Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota will convene an interdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar, “Making the Mississippi: Formulating new water narratives for the 21st century and beyond,” to develop a new intellectual framework and supporting narratives to theorize new ways of thinking about water systems. The faculty seminar and parallel public lecture series will take place during 2014-15, with bi-weekly seminar speakers alternating between local experts and visiting scholars.

The John E. Sawyer Seminars on the Comparative Study of Cultures are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in honor of the third president of the foundation.

We’ll gather people from across the region and around the country to engage in a broad-based conversation of what the Mississippi River means and how that meaning is (or can be) part of discussions as different as Corps of Engineers policy, local place-based art installations, and course work for students.

Stay tuned; you’ll surely hear more about this as the project develops.  If you have river stories to tell, or ideas about how our broader river narratives should evolve, be sure to share those with us!

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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.